How learning hubs are helping students make up for lost COVID time After school "learning hubs" are helping some high school students in North Carolina catch up on academic time lost due to COVID — and stay on track for graduation.

Extra learning time is helping these students catch up from COVID interruptions

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We are coming to the close of the fourth school semester in a row to be significantly disrupted by the pandemic - so many struggles over remote learning, masks, quarantines, staffing, politics. But as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, some schools are innovating to meet those challenges, like in Guilford County, N.C., where students are finding their way back to learning even after school hours.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It's a beautiful fall afternoon. Sophomore Dreshon Robinson is headed to his high school cafeteria.

DRESHON ROBINSON: I come here every day.

KAMENETZ: He wants to be a music engineer someday.

ROBINSON: I just like Adele, really.

KAMENETZ: But right now, he's working evenings in a restaurant. And Monday through Thursday after school, he and dozens of his classmates come to Grimsley High School's learning hub.

CHRISTOPHER BURNETTE: What you working on today?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Science.

BURNETTE: Science? Science is in this middle here. You got Ms. Moore-Lyons (ph). You see her?

KAMENETZ: Here, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m., there are certified teachers to help students with any subject. One of the most popular is math.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A negative ten is greater than a negative 11.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So it has to be less than.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You want veggie or meat?

KAMENETZ: Tuesdays and Thursdays, there's free dinner, too...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tell me when. I'm just going to keep going till you tell me to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS REVVING)

KAMENETZ: ...And a bus to take you home. These learning hubs first opened last fall in Guilford County, a large district in north-central North Carolina that includes Greensboro. They started off simply, as a way to connect to remote learning for the 1 in 5 families in the district who had no high-speed internet. Then, superintendent Sharon Contreras says, they saw another need, too.

SHARON CONTRERAS: The high school students began working when their parents were losing their jobs, losing employment.

KAMENETZ: So the district opened up the hubs on Saturdays. They served meals and offered students incentives, like a gift card to Sheetz for gas.

CONTRERAS: So we had to find ways to keep them engaged and keep them moving forward toward graduation.

KAMENETZ: It worked. In fact, with the help of increased flexibility from the state, Guilford County posted the highest high school graduation rate in its history in the spring of 2021 - 91.4% - that in a district where two-thirds of students are living in poverty.

CONTRERAS: We visited shelters. We were very concerned that we could not place our eyes on students, did not know if they were OK.

KAMENETZ: This school year, when they came back in person, Contreras, the superintendent, says they did not want to leave any student behind.

CONTRERAS: We already knew that academically they were suffering, but there are many more concerns that go beyond academic concerns. And that kept me up at night. It kept my staff up at night. It kept the board members up at night. So we just knocked on doors saying, please come back. It's safe to come back to school.

KAMENETZ: Like districts all over the country, Guilford County has seen falling test scores after months of remote and hybrid learning and all of the stresses and traumas of the pandemic. The Walton Family Foundation, which is also a supporter of NPR, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundations funded these learning hubs this fall to help students catch up. It's completely voluntary. And so far, numbers are small, but it does seem to be helping the students who do show up.

BURNETTE: We have got a lot of kids who typically would have tapped out at this particular point in the year.

KAMENETZ: That's assistant principal at Grimsley High School Christopher Burnette. He runs the learning hub. And he says when students have low grades in their first quarter...

BURNETTE: They realize that this is a no-win situation, and then they start to fade back.

KAMENETZ: Attendance drops. They're turning less work in. Grades plummet. That could have been Dreshon. He lost 15 days this fall to COVID quarantine.

ROBINSON: OK, so we actually doing purines?

SIERRA HANNIPOLE: Pyrimidines, yeah. So what goes with the T?

ROBINSON: A.

HANNIPOLE: You know it.

KAMENETZ: We caught up with him in biology class. Today's lesson - DNA replication.

HANNIPOLE: Biology is hard to teach from a computer.

KAMENETZ: That's Dreshon's favorite teacher, his biology teacher, Sierra Hannipole.

HANNIPOLE: When he got behind, it was a struggle to pick him back up. And that's unfair to him 'cause he does try. He tries really hard.

ROBINSON: I don't want to ever go fall behind again because it was really hard. Like, you come in, and you look at everybody like, oh, Dre's back. And then you be like, oh, what are we doing? Oh, we doing this? I'm like, oh, I don't know what that is.

KAMENETZ: Ms. Hannipole says since Dreshon has been going to the hub, he's more focused, more on top of the deadlines, and he speaks up in class.

ROBINSON: What do we do?

HANNIPOLE: What do we do? We read the instructions. OK.

ROBINSON: Like, we understand it until the part where it gets...

KAMENETZ: Dreshon says the learning hubs have changed his perspective on schoolwork.

ROBINSON: I always felt like - I was like, man, studying is whack, like - but then you get to high school, and you like, dang, maybe I do need to study. But I'm like, I don't know how to study. So you go to the learning hub. They help you - you know, help you study.

KAMENETZ: He's happy to be back at school in person. He says he wants to go to college and pursue his dreams.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Greensboro, N.C.

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